Contours of India’s national security

A strong India needs to reimagine its national security fundamentals

This is the first article in my new column series In-Security. The series will concern itself with matters of national interest from the perspective of India’s economic development, internal security and inclusion. I approach the issue of national interest from the point of view, that a grounded, stable and internally strong India is a necessary condition for projecting that strength externally. I hope to explore some profound questions and some practical ones under these broad areas.

Economic growth is the centerpiece: Pursuing the national interest with independence and vigour will remain a dream if we do not have the resources to go after it. Consistent and strong growth and the consequent national savings it generates is the bedrock upon which to build India’s framework of realpolitik. In a recent article for Pragati, I referred to prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s speech at the Red Fort on the occasion of our 65th Anniversary of Independence. The Prime Minister explicitly linked (fast) growth with security. His words translated into English were: “If we do not increase the pace of the country’s economic growth, take steps to encourage new investment in the economy, improve the management of government finances and work for the livelihood security of the common man and energy security of the country, then it most certainly affects our national security.” To many this will seem obvious and commonsensical. Yet it bears repetition because too often India forgets this and begins to redistribute the gains for social programmes before we make enough from the point of view of national security.


India needs a narrative: This is what the French call – raison d’etat – which literally means the reason of state. It is widely known that the political contours of historical India rarely occupied the full footprint of today’s India. Alas, this new large, diverse India lacks a cohesive common idea. We correctly celebrate our diversity, but our common threads are not nurtured in a growing ambiance of regionalism, parochialism and religious intolerance. Ask what we mean by the “idea of India” and you will get a thousand different answers.  Most great nations are built on a common idea – a strong anchor that supports the aspirations of a nation and its people.  The Chinese have grown up with the idea that they are the “Middle Kingdom” – the land around which everything else is organised. The occupation of China by foreign powers during the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries has been translated into “a need to avenge national humiliation”. And their contemporary purpose is to get back to their status as the Middle Kingdom. India has some possible themes it can get behind – secular republic or deep-seated tolerance for instance – but it will have to adopt and give contextual meaning to these and make them signify something to every Indian.  The American idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is a unifying theme that among other things calls young Americans to service when it is perceived that the country is in danger.

India must follow its own path: There is a feeling in India that we would be better off under a different system. It is common parlour exercise to imagine India in the hands of a (benign) dictator who waves a magic wand and ensures that the country functions better.   No amount of caution about the poor odds of benign versus malignant dictatorships seems enough to dissuade these (often well-to-do) citizens. The true value of freedom is undervalued in much of the country because the grind and inconvenience of daily living makes people hanker for an alternative. But India is free, federal and chaotic. We must make a virtue of this rather than bemoan its limitations. The consequences for any institution – a company, an organisation or a country – that does not follow a path consistent with its own ‘centre’ usually ends up in disaster.

Inclusion means equality of opportunity: Uneven growth maybe okay from the point of view of the economy but it is not a prescription for long-term stability and security. Most people accept this point. However, many in positions of power believe that the best way to ‘arrange’ inclusion is to legislate rights and organise giveaways. Au contraire, the most effective way is to allow citizens the opportunity to provide for themselves and then leave them accountable to do so. This implies many things – the most clear-cut of which is the need to provide excellent and universal primary education, basic universal health access and affordable college and vocational education. It also implies that roads, electricity, water and cleanliness penetrate deep into the country and are available to our billion citizens. Almost everything else should be up to the individual and the community he lives in and the markets he uses.

Rediscover the strategic importance of our coastline: India and Indians have been an ‘inland’ tribe for nearly a thousand years. Many analysts attribute India’s vulnerability to European conquest to a weak navy and insufficient ability to defend our coastline. It is no surprise that the terrorists of 26/11 attacked Mumbai from the sea, a soft opening for soft targets. Prior to this period, India’s outward focus was not only through the Khyber and other passes of the Himalayas but also through maritime expeditions launched from the East and West coasts of India. The world’s first ever dock is believed to have been in Lothal (today’s Gujarat) in 2400 BCE. The Kalinga and Chola reach into South East Asia allowed them to open up commercial routes and impose their politics, art, religion and architecture on these countries. The large Hindu temple complex in Angkor Wat, Cambodia, stands as historical testament to that kind of influence. Kanhoji Angre, the head of the Maratha Navy in the 17th Century, was an exception- a brave and feared figure- pirate to some, patriot to others. Given India’s long coastline and an age when geography’s limitations on power, influence and war are morphing, India would do well to rebuild a maritime DNA.

Throughout our history, India and Indians have had ambivalence about projecting strength. There is a tendency towards softness and sentimentality. The challenge for India is to balance the principle that underlies that notion – a deep-seated tolerance and desire to get along – with the open power projection that is expected in contemporary times.

Photo: Eric Constantineau